July 10, 2020

How We Become Human


Crucifixion, Antonello

I know, as a tenet of my faith, that Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection somehow have set me free from death and given me new life.  I know that God says that he will take away my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh.  But I can’t say I understand how that happens or even how it looks in human terms.  Recently, though, I may have gotten a glimpse at part of the process.

Our normal pew at church is more than halfway around the Stations of the Cross, which are displayed up and down the side walls.  On the other side of the church, bas relief panels show the earliest steps leading up to the Crucifixion, but from where I sit the scenes show Jesus stumbling and falling, wounded and exhausted.  I really don’t like looking at them and usually turn my eyes away.  Sometimes the depictions make me feel angry, sometimes depressed and disgusted with the whole human race.  But on a recent morning, for some reason, my usual defenses were breached.  I looked closely at the images of Jesus collapsed and crushed, and I felt pity, overwhelming pity, for – well, for God.

It seemed like hubris, to pity God, as if I were above him somehow and condescending to him.  Then I remembered the trial depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, was asked why he had approached and interacted with her.  “I felt sorry for her,” he said – and we know at that moment that Tom was doomed regardless of the facts of the case.  That a black man would dare to feel sorry for a white woman – poor trash or not – was insupportable to the all-white jury.  Tom, being black, could not be thought of a human in the same way they were.  They could not stand the realization that pity made Tom Robinson truly human in a way that most people in the courtroom weren’t.  In that aspect he was like Jesus, who pitied the people who had it in their power to put him to death.

It occurred to me, in the quick glances of the Stations of the Cross that were all I could endure:  God gave himself to us partly in order to be pitied.  The Maker of the Universe, the Holy, the Almighty, became a baby and a victim of our sin and injustice so that we would pity him.  Maybe my pity is the first sign that my heart of stone is turning into flesh.  Maybe my new life is not just the result of Christ conquering death, which inspires feelings of gratitude and joy.  The new life is also being bought for me daily by his weakness and suffering, which inspire me to pity God himself.


  1. Interesting take.

    When I look at Jesus on the Cross ( think about it )…I pity those who don’t understand their role in putting him there.

    And how hopeless the situation would be without that dearth and accompanying forgiveness to us, his murderers.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      And another sermon “to us, His murderers”.

      This sounds like Spiritual-sounding guilt manipulation for the Altar Call. (Of which I heard a LOT during my time in-country).

      • Note the PRONOUNS…

        Surely HE has borne OUR griefs
        and carried OUR sorrows;
        yet WE esteemed HIM stricken,
        smitten by God, and afflicted.
        But HE was pierced for OUR transgressions;
        HE was crushed for OUR iniquities;
        upon HIM was the chastisement that brought US peace,
        and with HIS wounds WE are healed.
        All WE like sheep have gone astray;
        WE have turned—every one—to his own way;
        and the Lord has laid on HIM
        the iniquity of US all. (Isaiah 53.4-6)

        HE was killed by God for US. Were it not for US who sinned HE would not have had to suffer and die. Damaris’ words are the pure, simple truth of the gospel of the cross, not “guilt manipulation.” The only guilt here is OUR guilt which fell on HIM.

        “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15.13)

        Thank you, Damaris, for getting my day off to a good start by reminding me of HE who took away MY sin.

        • Dana Ames says


          you wrote: “HE was killed by God for US.”

          Respectfully, no, no, no. Scripture does not say this. It says that Jesus gave up his life – no one took it from him. The crucifixion of our sin in the flesh of Christ cannot mean this. On the cross he surrendered his spirit to the Father. That is trust, and a father who kills is not worthy of anyone’s trust.

          Beyond that, if such an action were true, it would be a division within the Trinity, who always acts with one movement, one purpose.

          These are just 2 of the problems of scriptural interpretation that made lots of Protestantism abhorrent for me. I don’t have the theological chops to explain much further. Do speak to your friend Fr Ernesto about this.


          • Aidan Clevinger says

            But why can’t the Father, the Son, and the Spirit be united in appointing Christ as the sacrifice for sins? Why is there conflict in saying both that Jesus willingly gave up His life and that His Father took it from Him? Is it any greater than the conflict between saying that Jesus both wanted to go to the cross and did not (“if it be possible, let this cup be removed from me”)? After all, in the passage from Isaiah, the prophet says that YHWH laid upon Jesus the iniquity of us all. And how else does one deal with the, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”? The cross messes everything up that we know. The Father and the Son are, on the surface, divided, but this division is just a deeper union of purpose and will. They with the Spirit (language breakdown here) are utterly united in providing for the reconciliation and salvation of humankind by killing Christ as the propitiation for our sins.

            Besides, if Jesus can’t trust the Father who kills Him, then neither can we. “On the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die. Cursed are you and cursed is the ground because of you. From dust you are and to dust you shall return.” God does indeed judge us and sentence us to death. But He then comes to us in Christ and reveals His deepest purpose, which is to give us life and salvation. Both are true, Law and Gospel, wrath and grace, and God uses the former to accomplish the later. Occidendo vivificat: by killing He makes alive.

          • Dana, I will have to respectfully disagree with you on this. I suppose it is one of those issues where Protestants and Catholics will have to “agree to disagree” (I believe that it was John Wesley who coined this phrase with regards his good friend George Whitefield).

            Yes, Jesus said, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” (John 10.17-18) I believe that the context here, going back to John 9, was an argument (one of many) Jesus had with the Pharisees. It is no secret that the Pharisees wanted to see Jesus dead, and in fact, they eventually succeeded in this, not because they were so clever but because it was God’s plan that it would transpire this way. Therefore, a good rational explanation of Jesus’ statement that “No one takes it from me” is with regards the Pharisees, not the Father.

            As for the Father putting the Son to death because the Son willingly became sin for the sake of the saints is evident in Isaiah 53 and elsewhere. And although anyone can interpret anything in numerous ways, the clearest explanation is what it actually says, namely that “smitten by God, and afflicted…the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all…it was the will of the Lord to crush him”. The Father has the divine right to kill anyone He pleases for whatever reason He pleases, and killing His Son, who took our sins upon Himself, was the way He chose to redeem us.

            I understand why you and many others I have had the pleasure to dialogue with (I mean that, I am not being sarcastic) have issues with this. I read somewhere that Presbyterian USA wanted to change the lyrics to “In Christ alone from “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied” to “Till on that cross as Jesus died, The love of God was magnified.” Again, we have a hard time understanding the necessity of such violence. BTW, the authors correctly refused.

            That the Father put the Son to death makes perfect sense to me on several grounds. First, it means that the Son did not commit suicide. Second, and of much greater importance to me is that such knowledge fills me with love for the Holy Trinity for not abandoning me to my own sins but placing my iniquities on Him who had none and punishing Him in my place. It also reveals to me the severity of my sins and the personal offense that I once was to God. And the Father also resurrected the Son on the third day, and that’s even better news.

            Father Ernesto and I agree on many things. We are both Cuban-Americans Christians. But he has chosen to follow the Eastern Orthodox tradition and I have been elected (pun most definitely intended) to follow a Reformed tradition. And I suppose that we will need to agree to disagree on this and several other secondary matters of the faith…and yet remain united in Christ and on the primary matters of the faith (i.e., Nicene Creed and Athanasian Creed doctrines).

          • Dana Ames says

            Calvin, it’s fine if we disagree; God loves us, every one. I was raised Catholic, but I left, as a matter of conscience and bible interpretation, when I was in college, and was in non-sacramental Evangelical churches for 30 years, many influenced by Reform theology. I was received into Orthodoxy 5 years ago, largely because of its non-legalistic soteriology and Truly Good God. There is another way to interpret those scriptures while remaining faithful to the Creed.

            Aidan, not interested in arguing; it’s not the quoting of scripture that makes a point, it is always interpretation. I will say that no matter what Jesus was feeling, emotionally/physically/however, on the cross as reflected in parts of Ps 22, if you read the psalm all the way to the end, it proclaims deep trust in God and describes God’s triumph. The cross was where God met man at man’s lowest depths, where Christ came into his glory, and (coupled with the Incarnation and even more with the Resurrection), where God triumphed decisively over all his enemies. It is a sacrifice, but it absolutely does not need to be interpreted as penal, including Jesus accepting and cooperating with the Father “killing him.” With regard to forgiveness, the Father’s hands have not been not tied until Christ ascended the cross, or until a person “accepts Christ”; God has already forgiven us because that is his nature, and one of the things the cross is is the demonstration of that forgiveness. As for “propitiation” – that is a word that Tyndale, I believe, made up. The Greek is hilasterion and means “mercy seat” – as in that space between the 2 cherubim on the top of the Ark of the Covenant. That has no penal overtones at all – it is simply the place where the High Priest, as the representative/ summation of the people in worship, and with the blood – which points to the entire life – meets God. Something for you to think about.

            If you have not read it already, I would suggest to both of you St Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation.” It’s not a “Catholic book” – it is an expression of the single Church of the first 1000 years of Christianity. The version translated by C.S. Lewis’ friend, Sister Penelope, is very good English while keeping close to the Greek. (The only quibble I have is that she translated “nous” as “mind” – one has to understand that the word doesn’t mean “bare intellect” but rather the faculty within us that is capable of encountering God. The rest is excellent translation, very readable.) If you can read it in Greek, all the better. It’s not that difficult, but some places do need to be considered slowly, a sentence at a time. Did you know A. wrote it when he was in his early 20s? Phenomenal.

            Best regards-

          • In any discussion that involves the idea that God the Father demanded the sacrifice of his Son’s life to redeem humankind, it might help to remember that the Father was not remote from that sacrifice, nor was the Spirit, but each Person of the Trinity was intimately involved in the suffering of Jesus’ Passion, because they were, and are, bound together by a relationship of love that is infinitely deeper and closer than any of us has ever experienced. It is God in God’s completeness who hangs on Jesus’ cross. Aidan touched on this above as well.

          • CalvinCuban,

            “That the Father put the Son to death makes perfect sense to me on several grounds. First, it means that the Son did not commit suicide.”

            Self -sacrifice is not suicide, even if both end in death. On the basis of the logic of your argument on this point, the Father would be guilty of murder for putting an innocent man, Jesus, to death. Is it better for the Father to commit the murder of an innocent man than for the Son to commit suicide against himself? If you leave out the idea of sacrifice out, and specifically if you leave the idea of divine sacrifice out, all you can have as a result of the bloodshed is crime, one way or the other.

          • Dana,

            Over at the Orthodox blog “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” (I would provide a link but I’m a techno-idiot and don’t know how) they have two or three recent posts insisting that both the words “propitiation” and “expiation” are accurate words to use in describing, from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, the nature of Jesus Christ’s atonement on the Cross. So apparently, the view you present here, and the discomfort you feel with the language of propitiation, is not monolithic among theologically informed Orthodox people.

          • Robert, the issue is that the Son, although sinless by nature, became sin for us,

            “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5.21)

            Therefore God was in effect executing a “sin-ful” man, the “-” here between “sin” and “fuf” is intended to distinguish it from “sinful” and to indicate that He was full of sin in the sense that He took the sin of the world upon Himself even though He Himself had committed no sin.

            There is a great mystery and paradox here, and for that reason it is not easy to explain. But the fact remain that the sinner deserves death, and for this reason God had to kill His own Son. Personally I’m OK with this tension.

            And yes, Jesus was a sacrifice, a living, willing, innocent sacrifice. And at the same time, He became sin, the very thing which would merit death. Again, I’m OK with tension.

          • Dana,

            I reviewed the articles I mentioned on that blog. The writer does not accept the idea of penal substitution, but he does insist that Jesus was a sacrificial substitute, and that God the Father was the one who arranged for the Son to carry the weight of the world’s sin, and placed that burden upon him.

          • Dana, yes, it’s fine if we disagree. You are absolutely correct, God loves us, every one. I, too, was raised Catholic and educated by Jesuits. I left Catholicism not for any doctrinal disagreement but because I did not find Christ there and just got bored with it. I have since come to believe that He was/is there, but chose not to reveal Himself to me in that tradition.

            I became a “fundagelical” (I learned that word on this site; it’s a good word) in 1974 because I found Christ there. For whatever reason that was the tradition in which He chose to reveal Himself to me. Later I dropped the “fund” part but remained an evangelical. Some time after that I learned the meaning of grace as I had not understood it before, and that from a whole new perspective, that of Reformed theology.

            I do not find Reformed soteriology to be legalistic, and penal substitution is, IMO, the best explanation of the gospel. But it’s OK if we disagree on this, too. We all agree that Christ loves us and died for our sins. And that’s the part that counts. And in eternity all of these differences will be a distant, forgotten memory, sort of like a weird dream, I imagine.

          • David Cornwell says

            Dana Ames, thanks for your explanations given above. I like what you are saying about the positions of Orthodoxy and the reasons you give for making the change.

            And I like the way you say it. Thanks.

          • One last thought (yeah, right) I’d like to add to the discussion of penal substitution…

            I very much want to be careful not to come across as crude or cold. One criticism (well founded in many respects, actually) of Reformed theology is that it dissects and analyzes Scripture with the skill of a great surgeon, but in the process of doing so excises the heart. And that is the last thing I want to do.

            One of the most prominent proponents of penal substitution, J. I. Packer, is also one of it’s critics. He cautions that the doctrine of penal substitution not be presented from a legal/criminal justice model but rather in a manner which stirs the heart to repent and believe the gospel, for it is the kindness of the Lord which leads us to repentance, not sterile doctrine. Or put another way, penal substitution is to be explained in a way which is personally meaningful to us.

            This works very well for me and for many with whom I fellowship. Regardless, I understand and accept that it does not for others.

          • Dana Ames says

            David C, I always appreciate your words.

            Calvin, I appreciate your spirit.

            RobertF, I have seen the Ortho/Hetero articles. With many things, Orthodox theology is a lot more nuanced than Protestant theology, and nuanced in a different way than post-c. 1100 AD Catholic – kinda like NT Wright 🙂 There is a huge overlap between his understanding of things and Orthodoxy. He couldn’t lead me into the Orthodox Church, but he led me right up to the doors.


          • Calvin,

            I don’t think anyone who reads your comments could ever accuse you of being crude or cold. I love reading what you write.

          • Thank you for the kind words, Damaris.

  2. David Cornwell says

    Sorry, but I seriously doubt that any of us truly understand our role in putting him there. We will never figure out this God.

    • David Cornwell says

      This is a reply to Steve’s comment above.

      • You don’t understand how your sin was the reason for His having to come to us, David?

        It’s not hard to see when the Spirit of God convicts us of our sin. (over and over)

        • At the risk of putting words in David’s mouth, I’m pretty sure that’s not what he meant. It seemed, to me, to be meant as a statement of humility. There’s a difference between knowing intellectually that your sins are responsible for putting him there, and knowing it deeply, in your bones, that your sins put him there. And comprehending the degree to which we are responsible seems like something that human mind is not equipped to handle.

          • David Cornwell says

            Thanks Michael. I think there is great mystery even in what we THINK we have all figured out. Damaris touches on that in her opening paragraph:

            “I know, as a tenet of my faith, that Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection somehow have set me free from death and given me new life. I know that God says that he will take away my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh. But I can’t say I understand how that happens or even how it looks in human terms. “

          • I do see what you mean.

            To me, the great mystery is that He would go so far…for us.

            He is so unlike us.

  3. Christiane says

    “This thought should keep us humble: we are sinners, but we do not know how great.
    He alone knows Who died for our sins.”

    (John Henry Newman)

  4. Wait… nothing on Saint Patrick (he asks as he derails this post)? And how come this site isn’t all painted in green today….

    My great-great grandfather came over in 1843 (two years before the potato famine) to settle in Brooklyn and spread the faith as Saint Patrick did… well that’s not quite true.. he actually came over to make shoes and sell cheap rum… but that’s not the point…..

    OK … back to our regularly scheduled program….

    A couple of years ago I had a running buddy share with me that she did not like to think of the humanity of Jesus. Apparently she went to a Bible study where they talked in detail about what Jesus must have felt during the scourging and the carrying of the cross. She felt it shook her faith thinking of Jesus in those human terms because she only really saw one part of Him; Jesus the Divine, not Jesus the man.

    ” The new life is also being bought for me daily by his weakness and suffering, which inspire me to pity God himself.”

    Profound thought here… helps me to focus on humbleness which can be a heard thing to do…..

  5. Damaris, this thought is a divine flash of light and communion expressed in one of God’s limitless means of expression. He has let you feel toward him some of what he feels and you have shared it to also include us in the communion of it. Thank you.

  6. Thanks for your take on this, Damaris. I’ve never really thought to look at Jesus with pity, but rather with “I helped do that to him.” The idea of pitying someone as I’m actively beating him seems a bit sociopathic, so I’ll be mulling on this for a few days. (My initial thought is, “I need more forgiveness than I can even imagine.”)

    I wonder what God thought as He looked upon that scene. Did He pity His son?

    • That’s thought-provoking, Rick.

    • “I helped him do that.”

      This is very telling. Rather than seeing the power of God in weakness, do we see our own power as playing a role in the work of salvation?

      You are not actively beating Jesus. Apart from his consent, you could not possibly lay a finger on Him. I think, rather, the crucifixion is a necessary consequence of the incarnation. If a perfect man were to walk among us today, we’d kill him too, cause we’re purely intolerant of righteousness. A man who will not sin pisses us off ’cause we truly can not relate to that. It is so not relevant.

      Evil is what tortured Christ to death. Not us, but evil. And this evil dwells in us, and masters us, and will be our death as well. Unless there is a stronger life that can be given us. One that evil was incapable of snuffing out.

    • I’m convinced we need to put ourselves, at different times, in the position of all the people in the Gospels. Growing up, I was taught to identify with the crowd yelling “crucify him.” I still think that’s valuable, but I would add to it that one has to see oneself in many other positions too- Peter as a denier, the thief on the cross being promised vindication, Barabbas being let off as Jesus pays for my crime (and ironically called “the Father’s son” in the process) perhaps Pilate’s ambivalence and complacency, John as the adoptee of Jesus’ own parent, and the centurion who looks on and says “surely this man was the Son of God.”

      We’ll have to “put on different clothes” with regards to the story, so to speak, at different times. To me, Damaris’ pitying of Jesus seems an altogether appropriate set of clothes for the closet.

      • Good thoughts, Nate. I like the concept that we “put on different clothes” at different times. I often find myself reflecting on the various people you mention above and realizing how like them I am at times.

  7. Dana Ames says

    Damaris, thank you.

    Something shifted in me a few years ago when I began to apprehend something of the humility of God, esp as regards the crucifixion.

    (I have to pause there for a moment – it is overwhelming even while pushing the keyboard buttons…)

    You might be interested in this book by Fr John Behr, “Becoming Human” found here:

    I listened to a talk he gave wherein he mentions some of the themes which later came to a focus in the book. Awesome.


  8. “When I stand before the throne
    Dressed in beauty not my own,
    When I see Thee as Thou art,
    Love Thee with unsinning heart;
    Then, Lord, shall I fully know,
    Not till then, how much I owe.”

    -Robert Murray McCheyne

  9. Christiane says

    Damaris, thank you for this post.

    It reminds me of the old prophecy we read during the Lenten season, this:

    “. . . when they look on Me, on Him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only child . . . ”
    (from Zechariah 12:10)

  10. Regarding the question of how the Father regarded the Son at the moment of his suffering: I suspect we have this tendency to reductionism when considering such questions. We think “pity,” or “judgment,” or “abandonment,” as if our Heavenly Father only feels one emotion at a time, unalloyed. What if, like we who were made in his image, he feels a mix of emotions. And many at the same time.

    First, I recognize that there are some for whom the idea of God feeling emotion just seems wrong. But what else would you call anger or love? They are not something else just because God is the one feeling them? Are they?

    Granted, our emotions are often a jumble of the pure and the not so pure. We love and fear and desire and loath and want and hate all at the same time. We know that our confused emotional jangling often leads us to sin. So God is able to feel things in his holiness in a way that we do not. Without fear, certainly. And his anger is also pure (a frightening thought) unalloyed by sinful selfishness. Nevertheless, I don’t see a reason why affection and love and mercy and pity and steely determination and absolute resolution can’t co-inhere within him. In fact, I would expect a much more complex interplay than anything we can imagine.

    Just thinking out loud.

  11. On a separate note, this idea of being human posed by Damaris reminded me of the qualification for being considered human as posed by the Bene Gesserit order of the Dune novels by Frank Herbert. Basically, the bar for the Sisters of the order was set at the level of valuing survival over suffering. The sub-human would do anything to end the suffering. The truly human understood that suffering (fear and pain) was merely a mental construct that could be overcome in order to survive — and the human would endure suffering for the sake of surviving.

    I’m not sure how this interacts with Damaris’ thoughts, but her post sent me in that direction.

    • This idea would have the unfortunate implication that all who commit suicide because of unendurable psychological suffering, and all those who elect to not undergo extraordinary and painful medical measures in the face of end-of-life terminal illnesses, are less than human, and that simply won’t do. It’s far too Nietzschian, and in fact would demand an uber mensch, not a human being.

      Suffering ins not “merely a mental construct.” As Simone Weil wrote, suffering is physical pain, or something analogous to it, coupled with experiences that tend to dehumanize us by turning us into things, by taking away our choices and by reducing us to inert and passive recipients of what happens to us. Severe mental illness, protracted poverty, repeated and methodical acts of violence against a victim that induces ever-deepening trauma and destruction of the sense of self: these forms of suffering, and others, are not “merely a mental construct.” The person remains human in the face of them, but they are increasingly unable to experience their own humanity. To say that such suffering is “merely a mental construct,” and that to succumb to such suffering is to be less than human, is to divorce the body from the spirit in a way that has nothing to do with the Christianity.

      • Yup. Not saying I buy Herbert’s setup here. Just inviting comparison and contrast because the idea was specifically about the question of “what is human?” Good analysis.

        If I recall correctly, you come out of a buddhist background — so I find you stating that suffering is NOT a mental construct carries a unique weight. thanks.

        • Buddhist doctrine asserts that all phenomenon, including suffering, are the result of mind, and mind only. I’m far away from that thinking now. Thank God.

  12. “Pity” seems too small and too detached. They crucified my Lord.

    • Perhaps small and detached, but the first stirrings of life in a hard heart. Jesus also felt pity, so in one small degree I become more like him when I feel it.

  13. “I do remember how one time I thought,/’God must be lonely–oh, so lonely lone!/I will be very good to him’….”
    George McDonald.
    A touching thought -I will be very good to Him.

  14. Did not Christ become human and in our form to establish his link with us – an undeniable link that we share to this day. He was born of woman and became a man. He suffered and died at our own hands and Satan was allowed to bruise his heal. The price of the gift he gave us can never be counted. We must simply live our lives in the love he freely gave us. I think I may have personally called for Angels above to smite all those who wished wicked upon the Earth. We are now left with his gift of love to do with as we please. I wish I knew what to do, but must simply live along with love and peace.